Imagine the week of a college football matchup like Alabama/Florida, Oklahoma/Texas, Notre Dame/USC or Penn State/Michigan. Then imagine both those teams are highly ranked.
Now, imagine they haven't played each other in 22 years.
That's the situation as undefeated Bellwood-Antis prepares to take on unbeaten Northern Bedford for first place in the Gold Division of the Inter-County Conference on Friday. Kickoff between the two 7-0 squads is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Panther Community Stadium.
Mirror photo by Gary M.?Baranec
Northern Bedford quarterback Blake Over is one of the top passers in the Mirror coverage area this season.
"There's a lot of excitement about the game. You can't go anywhere without people talking about it," Northern Bedford coach Jeff Batzel said.
With good reason. In the time since Bellwood and Northern last butted heads on the gridiron, the teams have combined for six district championships and made several other appearances in their respective district finals.
Not only are both teams perfect entering this year's renewal, they've been largely unchallenged to this point: The Blue Devils' and Black Panthers' closest games were seven points, both in week 1. Their next most competitive games were both decided by 13.
"It's certainly a big game. There's a lot riding on the game from a lot of standpoints. From a league standpoint, it's most likely going to determine who wins the one division. That's at stake. And, obviously, the winner is going to have a big bonus as far as points toward the postseason," Bellwood coach John Hayes said. "There's a lot riding on the outcome, but I think the game itself is something a lot of people are looking forward to."
The reason the teams haven't come together more often is because they've always been in different ICC divisions and different districts. Opportunities to meet in crossover games were limited because the schools had other more traditional rivals outside the division and sometimes the conference whom they felt more important to keep on the schedule - Tyrone, for instance, in the case of Bellwood, and, until recently, Chestnut Ridge for NBC.
People have been talking about this game as soon as it appeared on the schedule, and it stands to reason it will attract one of the bigger crowds of the year for a Class A game.
Most of the players on the Blue Devils roster have been down this road before. The seniors have been through three "Backyard Brawls" with Class AA state power Tyrone. They were in the District 6 final last year against Penns Manor and have battled perennial district contender Bishop McCort the last two postseasons.
"They may not be as overwhelmed by a game of this size," Hayes said. "We try to approach every week as this is our toughest game this week, and we need to be at our best. Of course, when you are dealing with 16-, 17-year-old kids, that doesn't always go over as well as you'd hope. I know our kids are aware of the challenge this week, and I think they'll dig in to their experience."
As Hayes said, with so much talk about the game outside of school and off the practice field, it's easy to let emotions run to high and for focus to run out of control of the coach. Batzel, though, wanted his players to relish the spotlight.
"I do want it to be exciting for them. It should be fun for them that they're on center stage like this," Batzel said. "But I'm not concerned about them being overhyped. They are a very focused, business-like group. They remind me a lot of our [District 5 runner-up] team of two years ago."
There will be a plethora of playmakers on both sides of the ball. B-A's Casey Gray has rushed for more than 800 yards so far this season, quarterback Seth Worthing scored on three plays covering 88 yards or more just last week against Southern Huntingdon, and his twin brother, Cameron, is among the area leaders in touchdown receptions with five and yards per catch.
Plus, it looks like the Devils will be getting back all-state tight end Ian O'Shea this week; injuries have limited him to about three quarters of action this season.
"They've got great team speed. That's a big concern. We've got to contain that," Batzel said.
On the other side, Blake Over is leading the area in passing by more than 600 yards. The Panthers also boast three of the area's top five receivers, including leader Kyler Diehl and Tayler Pressel, who is tied for second in catches.
Bellwood's opposition, meanwhile, has completed more than 50 percent of its passes for almost 100 yards per game.
"They have a very good offensive team. The passing numbers stand out, but they're balanced," Hayes said. "The fact that we've given up a lot? Sometimes statistics aren't really the bottom line. There's only one that matters when the game's over, and, so far, we've been fortunate enough to endure most of what's been thrown at us."
Under the radar a bit, the game also features two of the top seven scoring defenses in the area.
"I think that the team that forces turnover, makes the big play on defense, comes up with the key stop at the right time," Batzel said, "is going to come out on top."